With a glass of scotch in one hand, and a cigar in the second, Brian Keffer, longtime pastor of the Zion Evangelical Church in Fort Frances, celebrates his retirement after serving in the congregation and the community for 24 years.
Keffer has been a part of hundreds of weddings and funerals since he moved to town in 1997. He has been an integral part in the community, forming many friendships and creating many memories.
“It’s a joke about ministers…but we hatch, match and dispatch,” Keffer chuckled. “Being part of a wedding or a funeral plan is a powerful thing. It’s tremendously significant [being part of a wedding] because you’re with people when they’re first making a commitment to each other in community.”
After graduating from Wilfrid Laurier University and Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Keffer was ordained in 1989 in Waterloo. He then served for seven years at Faith Lutheran Church in Deep River, before moving to Fort Frances and making it his forever home.
But before Keffer, his wife, Peggy and four children, Lucas, Aaron, Tirzah and Isaac, moved to town, Peggy went to Nipissing University for teaching.
Although Keffer was born on a farm in Brockville, he embraced the vast wildlife and lakes in northwestern Ontario. The Keffers have six canoes, and they try to go on at least one canoe trip with the family a year.
“We’ve been doing that for a long time, since they were just little and now they’re doing it with their little kids,” Keffer said. “It took me a little convincing to get a boat, but I realized how important that was in the culture here. And when we first moved here, I thought if we’re going to stay here for a while, I think I’m going to get a boat.”
Keffer also loves to fish, an activity he was deprived of, by virtue of having most of the weddings in the summer and the spring.
“The weddings have taken up a lot of my fishing time,” Keffer said. “Most weddings start in April and they usually don’t finish until October. It’s at least 15 weddings and that’s a lot of weekends. You can’t just go fishing in the morning and then do a wedding. You might not show up.”
The Keffer residence is also surrounded by 12 maple trees that require about 20 taps per season.
“I planted all these maple trees when I first moved here,” Keffer said. “I make it in the open fire in my backyard. I boil about five pots of sap at a time. We collect it in big 70 litre containers. We make maple syrup every march. It runs about two months.We end up with about 50 to 70 litres of maple syrup, which is way more than anybody could possibly want.”
Keffer has ordained 202 weddings and serviced 221 funerals. However, he will not forget one wedding, which he almost forgot to attend.
One couple had planned an unusually small wedding gathering for five people. It was on an unusual day, a Thursday afternoon, Keffer said. There was no rehearsal, and Keffer did not look at his book that morning because he never has weddings on a Thursday.
“I was working away at some mechanical fixing job on something under my truck. I was covered in grease, and it was pouring rain so I was wet and dirty. I curled up from under my truck and heard the phone ringing. They said ‘Pastor Keffer, how come you’re not at the Church?’ I told him I don’t live there,” Keffer chuckled. “They tell me I’m supposed to be at a wedding right now.”
Keffer said he has never gotten ready that fast in his life.
Funerals are as unique as weddings, Keffer said, because every person’s relationship is unique and different.
“To be part of that and hear their story and be with them in that significant transition in their lives is tremendously amazing,” Keffer said. “It’s a sacred thing that people invite me into that process with them. It can be terribly painful and difficult, but it’s always been worth it. I rarely ever say no. I have to really have some significant reason to say no, if someone’s needing that kind of help.”
Keffer added that serving in the congregation taught him the importance of the value of a community.
“I think the importance is to have people value their lives no matter what form it takes. It’s always been a really important thing for me to be an encouragement for people, Keffer said. “I’ve been through difficult things in my life. And people have encouraged me through them and helped me through them. I feel an obligation deep in my soul to help other people find their way, and not my way.”
Keffer said he is already booked for three weddings next summer, but will not take more commitments in the near future. However, he has advice for married couples: communicate and try to do things together.
“Peggy and I still hold hands, we still go for walks when we can, and we still share our day in some fashion at some point,” Keffer said. “And I just tell couples to find those times. It’s really important on a daily basis if you can do things you enjoy together, even for short periods of time. It’s intimate and intimacy is huge, but it takes a little bit of time.”
With more time on his hands, Keffer said he will enjoy the lake, canoeing, fishing and tapping sap, while enjoying the company of his wife, four children and five grandchildren that are soon to be six.